My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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United, my trip from hell, and karmic retribution

When I learned of how United’s stock plummeted after an information mishap this week, I have to admit that I laughed out lot. It wasn’t a LOL, but full-on hysterics. I couldn’t help but think: karma, bites you in the ass every time. Y’see, whenever I think of United, I think of my trip from hell this summer and the atrocious ways in which the company handled it. I shudder when I hear their name and when travel agents try to put me on a United flight, my emotional response is pure panic.

United managed to dehumanize me at an unprecedented level this summer. United’s attitudes were worse than AT&T and Blue Cross… combined. I felt used, abused, and taken for a ride. I missed the wedding of two dear friends and was practically laughed at by United when I voiced my dissent. I have never spent so much money to be treated so terribly. And I’m so bitter about it that I do everything possible to dissuade those that I know and love from getting on one of their aircrafts. (So for those of you booking flights, think twice before going with United.)

Earlier this summer, I went to China. I got there via American, did my speaking thing, and then went to leave. By that time, my lungs were a mess and I was anxious to leave. Plus, two of my dear friends were about to get married and I was to leave Beijing to join them for their rehearsal dinner. I had booked the United flight because it was the only direct to Dulles. I was wary of United and so I had checked multiple other routes and felt confident that I should be able to get to DC one way or another, especially since I was booking an expensive business class seat (almost $10K). I should’ve known. Here’s the abbreviated story:

As we were about to board, they reported mechanical issues. We were to wait around. Delay after delay and eventually I went to the Lounge, hoping to find a United rep to tell me what was going on. All of the other business folks were there too, irate. Much to my horror, there were no United reps there because it was a partner lounge. Worse, the Air China employees were downright hostile and unhelpful. I asked to get onto alternate flights, but the Air China people told me they couldn’t help me and, more irritatingly, wouldn’t. They told me I had to speak to United. I asked where I could find a United rep and I was told (rudely) that I would have to go back out through security/customs to the front desk. My visa wouldn’t allow this. I asked if I could call United from there and they told me no. Everyone around me was calling back to the States to get information. There was no WiFi and only 5 Internet data ports so there was no way to go that route.

Things got worse as the night progressed. It became clear that the flight was to be cancelled, but they wouldn’t cancel it which prohibited any of us from being moved to other flights. Finally, late into the evening, United reps came around to hand out vouchers to a hotel. No clear instructions were given and it was utter mayhem. From the time they gave us the vouchers to the time that they got us to the hotel (sans luggage) took three hours. The United reps called twice in the middle of the night to wake us and tell us that we would be leaving earlier.

At 9AM, I met the United reps downstairs and they hurried us onto shuttles. We got to the airport (having collectively bonded) and when we were given our boarding passes, they had vastly different board times on them: 11.45, 12:15, 14:15. Much confusion, every rep said something different. It also became clear that there was no plane and that we wouldn’t be leaving.

Y’see… we learned later that they didn’t have a mechanic. They didn’t bring one in the night before and they didn’t have one in the morning. We sat around the lounge all morning, getting more and more angry as no information was provided and the China Air folks continued to be hostile to our presence. Many flights came and went but we weren’t allowed on those other ones. At noon, a representative showed up with little to no information and was bombarded by pissed off people with questions that she couldn’t answer. She told us that she’d return again at 1PM. It took us a few more hours to get out of there and we boarded a plane with barely working A/C and a worn-out but gracious flight staff.

Not only did I miss the rehearsal dinner, I missed the whole wedding. I was exhausted, miserable, and emotionally drained. The only people who were remotely polite were the United reps who were too junior to have any information whatsoever and just kept apologizing in broken English and the very exhausted flight attendants. Everyone else was as rude and horrid as possible, along with completely unhelpful, unresponsive, and unaccommodating. Even though there were a bazillion alternatives (who weren’t even flying full), United did nothing to help. It wasn’t even that I wasn’t high enough on the totem poll – they were universally assholes to everyone. I asked a few of the Business Class passengers why they flew United and their reason was depressing: “because my company makes me.” A few of them told me that when they flew personal, they flew anything but United.

At the end, we were given a “friendship kit” to submit to United. I did, along with a four page letter detailing what happened when. The response? A generic apology letter and a $150 discount for future flights. As an apology for a mangled $10K flight. Fuck you too United.

My partner always makes fun of me for being an overly loyal customer. It runs both ways though. I’m loyal to those companies who I feel treat me with respect and I hold long grudges against those that appear to enjoy screwing me. Grudges that I’m happy to share with others and incite mini-boycotts. And, at the end of the day, when I watch such ungracious, condescending, cruel, and greedy companies get fucked over by an act of fate or information accident or however you’d like to explain how that old article about their earlier bankruptcy ended up getting treated as contemporary, well, I just have to laugh. Karma… it bites you in the ass every time.

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8 comments to United, my trip from hell, and karmic retribution

  • I hate to add to the crush, but I’ve found that far to often what seemed to be corporate loyalty ended up being a completely unintended pattern of fortuitous interaction with people. In short, I don’t think there is much loyalty to people except on an individual basis and beyond that, i think the rest is just our own misapprehensions of our own good luck…. My wife just had a similar experience, shorter flight, 10 hours delayed, and they turned around 1/2 way here…

  • Maria

    You’re not the only one! I have a free ticket on United and would rather let it expire than take it. Horrid airline, and rated the worst by Conde Nast:

    http://www.gadling.com/2008/06/12/em-conde-nast-portfolio-em-weighs-in-on-just-how-much-united/

  • Erich

    The Consumerist has contact info for UA’s Vice President and Chief Customer Officer. Good luck.

    Graham Atkinson
    Fax: 1-847-700-3451
    Email: graham.atkinson@united.com

  • Steph

    I don’t comment on blog posts much, but you’ve inspired, nay, compelled me to. I am so sorry to hear about your experience (especially at $10k).

    I NEVER fly United. I pay MORE to fly on other airlines because it’s worth it to avoid United (and I do not make much money).

    Years ago, I *tried* to fly United four times for business. They were my employer’s “preferred airline” (no longer). Only one of the four planes ever managed to leave the airport. The other flights were canceled and, after 12-14 hours, I managed to leave the airport via other airlines. For the flight that did manage to leave, it only took off after three hours of sitting on the runway. This three hour delay meant that I missed a connecting flight to Europe in Atlanta, where I had a meeting the following European business day. The last flight to *anywhere* in Europe was an Air France flight to Paris. I took that flight and hopped another to London, landing in Europe after a full 24+ hours of constant travel with a few hours to spare before my presentation.

    Did United even once apologize? Acknowledge a problem? Offer a voucher for so much as a free coffee? Of course not. Yet, de Gaulle airport (of all places) felt sorry for us and offered free food and beer (praise be) vouchers for the entire time we had to spend at the airport.

    I have other stories (like the time it took me 14 hours to go from San Francisco to Boston, when it would have been faster to just fly to Singapore), but this one is representative. What I don’t understand is why this airline simply will not be allowed to fail. Why does anyone attempt to salvage this mess? For once, can we let the market work and let airlines (especially United) fail? Please?

  • Necoli

    danah- you were TOO kind. I would have booked myself another flight and filed a chargeback with my CC for the $10k. Seriously, after all that you got a $150 coupon???? I would contact a different person and demand a refund.

  • I’ve been reading your blog for years and never felt compelled to comment, except for my disdain for United! I had a similar bad experience a few years back – except that my 90 minute flight was delayed over six hours –

    http://www.desertofmydreams.com/?p=4397

    My experience wasn’t as horrific as yours but their handling of the situation is almost identical. Most airlines seem to have varying degrees of suckage but United is in its own category of suckage. I’ve never seen a business treat its customers the way they do. I sent United the link to my blog post, curious to see their response. I too got a $150 certificate (which I actually never used and it expired). I get teh feeling that they don’t even read the complaints and just hand out those certificates blindly. After my experience, I now do everything in my power to avoid them.

  • CHris

    Maybe the lesson to be learned from this is not “don’t fly United anywhere” but rather “don’t fly anything but the state-approved airline into a command economy.”

  • I’ve enjoyed your blog for a few years now but have been mostly following tweets lately. Because of the subtitle of this blog, I wanted to suggest a reason that the airlines will never be allowed to fail.

    The history of the airlines is unique in our society. There are ties from the beginning to the Federal government and, more importantly defense contractors. Who manufactures airplanes? What else do those companies manufacture?

    With a major facility (or two or three) in every US state, all our politicians have a vested interest in the continuance of the airline industry, especially in “this economy.” The potential job hit rivals the automotive industry, not to mention the Money. Unfortunately, -and this is only my opinion, the popular logic is that it is essential to keep the largest airlines in business to maintain the demand for planes and other equipment.

    It’s doubtful that the airline industry will every be truly subject to the laws of the free-market because there is so much money at stake, and incredibly powerful lobbies at work.

    Since 9/11 we’ve watched the quality of a flight experience steadily decline, but as consumers it feels like there is little we can do but suck it up. It’s infuriating and demeaning and it seems to fly in the face of even the most basic customer-service principals. At the same time, the employees (who, except for the pilots have never been paid incredibly well to begin with) have been asked again and again to take pay cuts and reduce benefits to “save” their jobs. While this in no way justifies your or anyone else’s poor treatment, one would argue that they must be a pretty disgruntled bunch by now.

    It seems we have to address a major paradigm shift in our society with regards to business and travel. With so much of what you write and speak about in terms of technology and social media, one wonders how much physical travel is even necessary any more? Face-time is an important element of humanity as well as business practice, but in terms of what even small companies spend on air travel per year one wonders if even a 10% reduction across half US companies would send a message to the airlines, “We’re not gonna take it anymore.”

    Just a thought.